For this final installment of the Exploring the New “Black”, New York City-based makeup artist and esthetician Gregorie G. with Haitian roots talks about life and work. And Ferentz Lafargue, a professor and author who is also of Haitian descent and who divides his time between Brooklyn, NY and Oakland, CA, gets in on the discussion as well as shares his thoughts about “black music”.
Gregorie, what do you call yourself and why?
I just call myself Haitian although I was born in [Haiti] but raised in the U.S. I function under the premise that I am without question an American, but for homage and distinction sake, I am Haitian through and through.
I refer to myself as a Haitian American for a number of reasons. One because I believe America extends beyond the United States and that the US does not or should not monopolize that title. I am Haitian American in the sense that I am a citizen of Haiti and the Americas. That said, I do know that people automatically associate the US with America, and since I am a naturalized citizen of the US, I also consider myself a Haitian American in that context.
Gregorie, when did your family emigrate to this country and why?
I moved to the U.S. with my parents before I was one year old in 1969. I grew up in Los Angeles, Inglewood and Santa Monica, CA.
I came to the US in 1981. My parents traveled to the US in 1976 in search of broader options. They felt that their life would be limited under the Duvalier regime in Haiti. Ironically, like most Haitians who fled Haiti during the reign of the Duvaliers, they moved to the country that inserted that regime.
Ferentx, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Jamaica Queens. My neighborhood was incredibly mixed except for the absence of non-ethnic whites. My friends were Jamaican, Guyanese, Polish, Italian, Puerto Rican and a slew of other nationalities. It seemed as if everyone’s parents had an accent or called some place other than the US home.
Ferentz, have you ever felt a conflict between your family’s cultural values and those of the larger American and/or black American culture?
No, I have not. Like most African Americans, my parents valued hard work, education and a better life for their children.
What about your experience, Gregorie?
I found it particularly difficult to fit in as I got older, especially in my college years. Because I was raised in the U.S, my flavor for music and dress was undoubtedly influenced by Western culture. Although I may like Haitian music, I do not and did not frequent the parties that were typically held on Saturdays at someone’s home or at a nightclub.
I never quite fit in with the Haitian group at college because I didn’t fully speak Creole. I felt like I never quite fit in with African Americans because I looked a little different, not quite “Black.”
Gregorie, what, if anything, what distinguishes Haitians from other Caribbean groups?
Like with different groups of people, our music and food are slightly different regarding the use of different spices. I think the practice of voodoo transcends groups; but I am sure this practice is called something else depending on the group. Since I’ve lived the U.S. since I was very small, I don’t have a full grasp of how Haitians live in the mother country. For those of us raised in the U.S., [I believe that our experiences are] not much different than [those of] educated Haitians who still live there but have an appreciation for Western culture given what information is able to stream into the country.
Ferentz, what are your thoughts?
We speak a different language, Kreyol than most other Caribbean nations, we also share an island with a country that speaks a different language. Haiti is distinguished by its antagonist relationship with the US. While the particulars of the US/Haitian conflict are not as explicit as the Cuban struggle, it persists, and reveals itself in the political unrest in the country. Haiti is also among the handful of Caribbean countries where tourism is not the largest industry.
Ferentz, is there any tension between Haitians and other Caribbeans (e.g Jamaicans)?
I am sure there are tensions, and those tensions usually depend on how closely people are living together. If Haitians and Jamaicans or any other Caribbean nationalists are living in close proximity and therefore competing for jobs, seats in schools and other resources, there will be a certain degree of tension. From what I gather, both groups would prefer their children to not marry out of the race.
I actually think there is more tension within the Haitian community than with any other group of people. I have not personally observed or felt tension with another Caribbean community.
Gregorie, I want to talk to you about challenges in the workplace. I am told that employers prefer Africans and Caribbean immigrants to African Americans when it comes to employment. Is this true or is this just one of the “myths” that separate us?
I have never heard this but I may have an explanation for this. Many times blacks from other countries are perceived as having a better work ethic than their American counterparts. I don’t think it’s a “myth” that you see Haitians, Caribbean immigrants and Africans working in the braiding salons or soliciting customers on the streets. I don’t think it is a mystery when you see Africans toting large trash bags filled with purses and sunglasses to sell on the street from early in the morning until the late at night (no matter the weather).
It isn’t a mystery when you see a black man, who you know is not from this country, driving a cab so that he can provide for his family here in the U.S. despite the fact that he is a doctor in his native country. These are jobs that are usually seen as not good enough for the Black Americans who take the attitude, “We’ll let the foreigners take those jobs.”
Ferentz, I want to talk to you briefly about your book, Songs in the Key of My Life. Tell me a little about your book including why you wrote it. Is this your first book?
It is my first book, and the book is essentially a series of vignettes about memorable moments and the memorable music infusing my recollections of these events. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and what I sought to do was share my soundtrack with others in hopes that it will prompt others to reflect fondly on the songs that have been key to their own lives.
How is the book doing? How have readers responded to the book?
The book is doing well and the reader response has been positive. A number of people were surprised by the stories that they related to and everyone was inspired to consider how a similar book on their lives might look.At first people were bashful about admitting that they have similar memories about a song like “Caribbean Queen,” or tickled by the thought of me rocking out to Iron Maiden, but now no one feels compelled to hold back on their responses, and that’s what I wanted in the first place.
Is there such a thing as “black music” or is it just “American music”? And does the term black music include musical influences from other parts of the Diaspora?
Black music is not “just American music” because it explicitly embraces the influences from other parts of the African Diaspora. Additionally, “black music” in the Americas derives from traditional African musical practices. The United States has its own folk music tradition that includes “black music”, along with the music from all the other cultures that have contributed to making the US what it is today.
In the coming years, will “black music” undergo a redefinition and if so,what changes in the cultural and economic landscape will drive it?
All music will undergo a redefinition and I imagine a new art form will develop, a la hip hop in the 70s. The expanding access to computers and computer generated music programs will prompt the next generation of musicians to create music in different ways. I would venture to guess that the production of black music will more closely resemble the traits of classical music than it has in decades because kids will grow up sitting at home playing with/creating music in their bedrooms.
Gregorie, any closing thoughts?
I guess, in closing, I’d like to say that as a Haitian raised in the U.S. from a young child, I absorbed Western traditions. Luckily, my parents never let me forget the music, the art, the fashions and the fare of the beautiful country of Haiti. Without a doubt I have the best of both worlds.